It’s rare to find a victim who will testify against her trafficker. The risks are high and the process too often re-traumatizes them. So recently when our partner investigative team found two African women and the women wanted to file charges, I was cautious but hopeful.
We accompanied the two women to a special investigative department. Saving face is huge in this country so I will not mention them by name. Saying that much tells you already that it didn’t go well. It annoyed me that the officer did not acknowledge the women. It frustrated me that even though he understood what was said in English he only glanced their way as he referred to them. I felt alarmed however when he tried to quickly dismiss the case and seemed to be uninformed about what trafficking actually entails. The investigator we are partnering with explained how these women were approached in their country and offered false promises of jobs in Thailand. He told how they were put in debt to the trafficker and how on arrival in the country were threatened and coerced into prostitution to pay back the debt. The official listened with a smug look on his face and then said, “I really don’t see what this has to do with Thailand. The women were deceived in their own country.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Then he said, “The problem is this case isn’t really trafficking. It doesn’t sound like the women were physically forced into prostitution. Why didn’t they choose another job instead of prostitution? It doesn’t sound like trafficking.”
I really wanted to confront him, but being a foreigner I knew I had to wait it out. I glanced at Beng (my Thai colleague and anti-trafficking liaison) and made a face. She was squirming in her seat, wrestling with the cultural norm of subservience and the need to advocate for the victims. Her passion for justice won out and Beng spoke out boldly. I wanted to applaud when I heard her politely apologize for being direct and then carefully advocate for the women according to the Thai anti-trafficking law. The officials didn’t look pleased but they couldn’t deny the law.
After some more discussion, the officer agreed to submit the case to his boss. Then we were told that the women would need to go into the government shelter for the duration of the process. Based on our experience the process could easily take 4-5 months. The women looked alarmed but didn’t say anything.
One of our volunteers went to meet the women the following day for a doctor’s visit. The women didn’t show up. When called, they admitted they were too scared of being taken to the government shelter. The thought of being stuck in Thailand for so many months was overwhelming. Tired, exploited, abused, and concerned for their families, they just want to go home. The women withdrew their statements and decided not to file charges in Thailand. It would be much more safe and convenient for them to file charges in their own country and they insisted they would do so immediately once they returned.
We have a long ways to go in bringing justice to victims of trafficking. The problem isn’t Thailand’s alone. From the US, to Europe, to Africa to Asia, we hear of cases where victims were not identified and justice was denied. Too often the process is more concerned about getting the testimonies in court for prosecution and not as concerned about the wellbeing of the victims. In Thailand, adult victims are still denied the option of doing a video statement to avoid facing the trafficker in court.
Prosecution of criminals is essential in combating human trafficking. In order for a successful prosecution, the system relies heavily on the victim’s testimony. Until the system is safer and more victim-centered however, there will be few who will come forward willingly as witnesses. They go home silent with their secrets and the traffickers continue their exploitation.
Recently I heard of a successful trial in South Dakota in which women testified and a trafficker was prosecuted. I applaud that judicial system for the success. I am amazed at the bravery of the women who testified. That case is a good example of what happens when the system works well. We need to hear of more cases with the outcome of justice and care for the victims.
One of the African women has returned home to her family. She plans on reporting her trafficker there. It will be welcome news if we hear the case is actually investigated and the traffickers prosecuted. I won’t keep my fingers crossed but I will be praying that she is protected, well cared for, and that she will see justice. The second woman was too afraid of the consequences and too afraid of going home with nothing to show for her time of exploitation. She has returned to the streets. We have offered her assistance and now we wait for her to choose freedom.